Monday, August 15, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE FALLEN HOUSE” James K Baxter  (first published in 1953)
Looking at a new volume of collected poems for this week’s “Something New” made me think long and hard about what older volume of poems I could recommend to anybody with a clear conscience. Not to a poetry specialist, who wouldn’t need my advice anyway. Not to a teacher, who would want to dissect and kill the poems. But to a literate, non-specialist reader, who hasn’t read much poetry lately and simply wants to read, reflect, and see if there really is anything much to this poetry business.

Anthologies and Collected Poems of a well-known poet would be cheating. What is needed is one slim volume, written at a particular phase of a poet’s development, rather than a whole life’s work.

A sense of literary respectability tempts me to tell you to trot after some Modernist work, proving that I’m not stuck in the age of rhyming couplets and Late Romantic prettiness. I could dutifully tell you to take another look at T.S.Eliot’s  Prufrock or The Waste Land (originally published 1917 and 1922 respectively). If you had a feel for Modernist fun, I would tell you to check out Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems (1935)

For the sake of sheer infantile nostalgia, another part of me wants to nominate A.E.Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896) with all its despairing, “dying fall” poems that appeal particularly to moody adolescents. Or, trying to recapture childhood magic, I’d steer you towards Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie (1913) especially if it was the Faber edition (published 1958) that had wonderful, mysterious line illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

But in the end, as a New Zealander, I find that the specifically English and American imagery in all these volumes now puts a barrier between the poet’s experience and me. Anyway, they were all written long ago and, at least in Housman’s and de la Mare’s cases, there is much rhetoric and vocabulary that clearly belongs to another age.

Something both accessible and from New Zealand is required.

Surprisingly, there’s a lot to choose from, even when that “accessible” bit is taken into account. Yet experience makes me wary of recommending something Postmodernist, or indeed anything published in the last thirty years. As poet and poetry-editor, I read much poetry by my contemporaries, and I’m aware that current techniques take some getting-used-to for those who aren’t regular poetry readers.

So I go back nearly sixty years, to a New Zealander who was heavily influenced by the Late Romanticism of Yeats and Hardy, but who could also write like a Modernist when he chose and, in his later poems, went into something more terse and colloquial.

I’m talking about James K Baxter.

The volume I’m picking is his third collection, The Fallen House, first published in 1953.

Among other things, I have a personal reason for making this particular choice. The Fallen House was the first book of grown-up poems I picked up and read as a teenager, without being told to by some teacher. That was in the late 1960s, when Baxter had already moved on to other styles. But it was fresh to me and it was a pleasure to read it without having somebody telling me how much I was supposed to like it. A lingering nostalgia informs my choice, though The Fallen House stood up to my recent re-reading of it.

Baxter was 27 when The Fallen House was first published, and was still regarded as the Wunderkind of New Zealand poetry, even if some of his early admirers (like Allen Curnow and Denis Glover) were later to change their minds and become quite hostile to him. (One day, I might write a blog on how Baxter has recently been de-canonised by New Zealand Academe, while Curnow has been set up as the Unassailable Bard.)

Why did this book of poems appeal to me as a teenager? Why, in an odd sort of way, does it appeal to me now?

The Fallen House was written when Baxter was still in thrall to British Late Romantic models, before he had made his trip to India, become a Catholic or found the counter-culture. He was still the boozer and the copious rhetorician. He loaded his poems with Classical and European historical allusions. The title poem – still my favourite – compares the fall of a derelict South Island farm house to the “Atridean Doom” of Greek tragedy. The poem Wild Bees, about schoolboys raiding a colony of bees for their honey, compares the smoking-out of the bees to the destruction of Carthage and Troy. The more mature and erotic poem Rocket Show is an extended metaphor, where the growth and decay of love (and perhaps of the male member) is compared with the rise and fall of a rocket in a fireworks display. But even here the heart is a “blind Rosetta Stone”.

So far, so Great European Tradition.

Yet to my continuing pleasure, the settings are firmly New Zealand ones. A Dunedin beach, the back country of Otago, the farmlands further north, and so on. The sixteen lines of the poem Wellington tell us of a city which is the “sterile whore of a thousand bureaucrats” – certainly a young man’s over-the-top metaphor. But the poem also closes on the appropriately forlorn image of “the radio mast’s huge harp of the wind’s grief”. It pops into my mind whenever I sight the hills around Wellington.

I’d be the joy-killing schoolteacher if I gave all the details on Baxter’s use of rhyme, half-rhyme and recognizable patterns of rhythm when he was a young man. Suffice it to say that he was still very much a traditionalist in style, and a very adept one. It is in part this quality in his early poetry that makes me confident in recommending The Fallen House. If you wish to move into poetry gradually, it’s advisable to begin by reading poems that have a clear framework of stanza form and sound-pattern. More recent poetry might tax you in these areas.

At the same time, I’m not blind to the faults of this old volume. Poems in The Fallen House often strikes poses that are not fully justified by their subject matter. There is an element of the young poet showing off. Some of the vocabulary is over-blown and “poetic” in a fustian sense. In short, young Baxter was still finding his way. I do have good friends who can’t stand the young poet’s windy self-dramatization, and who comment that Baxter’s word-choice belongs to a tradition that was already becoming dated even as the young man was writing.

But as a fusion of an inherited British tradition and a specifically New Zealand scene, The Fallen House is still real honey, if smoke-soiled. Read it. Respect its age. Enjoy it. And know that the young man who wrote it was simply passing through its style on his way to somewhere else. Only dead poets never change their style.


  1. What constitues a poem and what constitutes a poet seem to be insoluble questions compounded by an individual's likes and dislikes and what he or she regards as a poem.
    It seems to me that more than any other writer a poet is defined, often by the poem itself, by a 'poet persona'.Some like Sam Hunt have an extroverted, public performer and reciter type of personality. That is part of his poetic persona but it is not necessary for each poet's persona. I know good poets who would rather die than read a word of their works in public.
    What I mean is that more than any other form of writer a poet assumes a persona just as an actor immerses himself into Hamlet. As there will be something of the actor in Hamlet though Hamlet is not totally the actir so with the poet and poetry. In many cases, I supect, the poet persona is also a useful means of keeping some things private, never mentioned and never revealed.
    More than with any other type of wrting, whether the work is a public or commissioned occasional or private 'inner'work, the poem announces that you are reading or hearing something of the poet's personal self. Or rather you are deftly given such an impression.
    Right up to the Georgians, poets often belonged to a social sub-group and presented to the public an easily recognisable type of profile. The trouble, if it is trouble, is not that poets are few but they are as diverse and as widespread as the English language,English cultures and the lands where it is written and spoken so that we can no longer talk about a person being a narriowly defined 'poet type'. Also since poetry is now so diverse many people do not know where to turn and can no longer by rigid rules to identify what are authetic poems.
    Opinions will always differ so while I do not accept that Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are poets whatever their other talents may be, but that Shemus Heaney is , some will disagree with me and argue the contrary.

  2. 'But I remember the bay that never was
    And stand like stone, and cannot turn away.'

    'The Fallen House' is full of terrific poems, Nicholas; they are beautiful and memorable, and evidence of a prodigious talent! No apologies needed.